Minneapolis park commissioners are laying the groundwork for a public vote on whether to increase taxes to renovate aging and worn neighborhood parks.
Park officials say that the city’s 157 parks have racked up a $110 million backlog of maintenance and upkeep since 2000, a funding shortfall that continues to rise every day. Without a change, that gap will grow by another $46 million by 2020, park officials say.
As a first step, park officials have authorized Superintendent Jayne Miller to conduct several dozen neighborhood meetings from May through September. The results of these meetings will help park officials determine whether to proceed with the referendum or scrap the plan all together.
“If we are hearing from everyone that there is no way in heck they’d do anything like that, then we’d have to look at another option,” Park Board President Liz Wielinski said. She and Miller said that without more money, increasing shares of the capital budget will be spent on emergency repairs to keep buildings operating rather than preventive maintenance to help them last longer, and outmoded equipment that’s falling apart will be removed.
A preliminary estimate shows it would cost the owner of a median-value home roughly $45 per year in added property taxes to close the maintenance gap and begin reducing the backlog. Whether voters would be willing to dig deeper for the city park system is also among the questions being asked in a broader survey being conducted for the Park Board.
Minneapolis is joining other major cities around the country looking at raising taxes to pay for park systems, which are often signature outdoor amenities cities lean on to recruit businesses and workers.
In 2014, Portland voters agreed to borrow $68 million to improve parks. Meanwhile, Seattle voters approved an extra levy that will bring in $48 million in its first year. Portland’s vote came after a round of park closures.
This is the first time in at least 15 years that Minneapolis park officials have launched a major effort for additional tax money.
Park commissioners abandoned plans for a 2000 referendum after they reached an agreement with then-Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, who feared that simultaneous referendums to extend the extra school tax, build libraries and fund parks would be problematic for voters. As part of the agreement that got park officials to abandon their effort, the mayor promised to increase park funding by $10.4 million over the next few years. But Mayor R.T. Rybak defeated Sayles Belton in 2001 and did not honor that commitment. A separate pact remains in place to better align which maintenance the city and Park Board pay for relating to parkways, sewers and trees.
Although a decision on a referendum and how much to seek is months off, it appeals to commissioners still stinging from their previous agreement that imploded when Rybak took over.
“It put the Park Board in a really bad position,” Commissioner Jon Olson said.
Commissioners like Olson said that a voter-approved referendum would provide guaranteed funding, while an extra levy for parks from City Hall would depend on the whims of future politicians and could easily be undone.
The Park Board, which has a general fund budget of $66 million, consists of large regional parks and smaller neighborhood parks. The regional parks at places like the Chain of Lakes and Wirth Park get money through the Metropolitan Council money to help buy, develop and operate them. They draw visitors from across the metro area for running and biking paths or cross-country ski trails.
The neighborhood parks scattered from Shingle Creek to Bossen Field are smaller and almost all city residents live within a 10-minute walk of one. New parks were created in inner city areas in the 1960s and 1970s and many parks also got new recreation centers then.
But Miller said the bill is now coming due for those aging buildings, which have gone decades without a major refreshening. Some will require extensive renovation for leaky roofs or new mechanical systems. Others may need to be replaced entirely, especially if people living near them have a desire for new types of activities in those buildings, Miller said. Park officials are preparing detailed summaries of past-due or upcoming replacement needs at each park.
Although the Park Board adopts a budget, the amount of property tax it collects is set by the Board of Estimate and Taxation, on which park officials hold one of six seats. The setting of property taxes typically happens after negotiations between the Park Board, the mayor and other taxing board members. Park property taxes make up about 8 percent of a typical bill paid by city taxpayers.
Some commissioners have pressed for a park spending referendum for years, but the current activity represents a new and intensified effort. It follows a decade of budget-cutting that reduced the park department’s workforce by 20 percent, while Miller found other operating efficiencies in how park trash is collected and trees are trimmed. The new focus on raising more money has strengthened since park officials’ budget retreat last July.
It also comes at a time when the debt load paid by city taxpayers is down substantially from the period when bonds were sold to pay for a $140 million library building program.
The Park Board has a few different ways to bring the issue to the ballot.
Park officials could collect about 7,000 signatures to guarantee a referendum, or ask the City Council or Charter Commission to initiate one.
City officials have tried to shift more money to parks lately. Parks got a hefty 4.9 percent increase, about $2 million this year, under Mayor Betsy Hodges’ budget recommendation. That was a significant factor in an overall citywide property tax increase of about $6 million for the year.